The Army and the Air Force are crafting a new combined air-ground combat attack strategy to improve warfare networks, perform long-range sensing of targets, strike enemies more effectively and strengthen defenses across multiple domains in real-time.
The Army-Air Force collaboration, called “Multi-Domain Operations,” has included in-depth joint-service wargames; it is ultimately aimed at developing new doctrine, service leaders explained.
“The goal is a joint Air Force-Army document,” Gen. John M. Murray, Commanding General of Army Futures Command, told Warrior Maven.
A new Army-Air Force collaboration war strategy is, broadly speaking, discussed in terms of being a modern, or new iteration of the Cold War-era “AirLand Battle” strategy.
AirLand Battle, which envisioned air-ground warfare synergy to counter a Soviet threat on the European continent, was intended to provide air cover for advancing land attack units confronting a larger Soviet Army.
Flying in close proximity land forces, air assets were intended to attack advancing ground units, weaken supply lines or destroy troop fortifications, clearing the way for offensive operations. While these objectives are of course still important, the currently emerging Air-Land cross-domain doctrinal is based upon the reality that modern air and ground forces are more dispersed – and therefore more threatening. Ground forces are now more vulnerable to longer-range air and missile strikes, drone attacks and guided weapons able to strike from high-altitudes.
This new concept, when it comes to technical application, involves a fundamental shift toward using information itself and a principle weapon in warfare operations. The tactical use of information to organize and enable effective combat involves a range of tactics — such as using air-assets as “nodes” across a larger air-ground combat scheme, firing ground weapons to attack enemy air defenses and leveraging the altitude and range of surveillance aircraft to pinpoint targets for land-based attacks.
“Will a sensor identifying target be land-based, air, or space? The longer the range, the less likely it will be a land-based sensor,” a senior Army official told Warrior in an interview- referring to the emerging doctrinal effort.
Much of the collaborative activity, the senior official described, involves the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. As part of the joint effort to pursue these aims, the Army Fires Center of Excellence has implemented a joint fires certification element.
Of course, the Army and the Air Force already have a history of successful warfare integration, including air-ground coordination in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. US Special Forces, the Air Force Special Tactics Squadron and strategically placed Joint Tactical Air Controllers have long identified ground-target coordinates for air attacks, often using land-based laser rangefinders to “paint” targets for fighter jets.
The emerging Army-Air Force approach seeks to move well beyond these existing tactics to extend the range, power and “multi-domain” effectiveness of combat operations, to include cyber, space and electromagnetic domains. While explaining some specifics of the Air Force contribution to this initiative, retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula said establishing a dispersed, multi-domain, inter-service warfare network presents a “difficult concept for an enemy to attack.”
This concept, placing information itself as indispensable connective tissue to networked cross-domain warfare, is further developed by Deptula in a Mitchell Institute policy paper called “Evolving Technologies and Warfare in the 21st Century: Introducing the “Combat Cloud.”
The essence of the combat cloud, the paper explains, resides in the concept that each system or platform in a warfare scenario is itself a “node” across a wide-spanning combat network.
“The ‘combat cloud’ inverts the paradigm of combined arms warfare— making information the focal point, not operational domains. This concept represents an evolution where individually networked platforms—in any domain—transform into a “system of systems” enterprise,” the paper writes.
For example, many land weapons such as Guided Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems, and artillery often max out at ranges of 70-to-90 km in many cases. Land-fired High Mobility Rocket Systems (HIMARS) are reported to have a maximum range up to 300 km. However, having a 300 km range for HIMARS does not mean targets can be properly identified or targeted at that distance.
Many fighter jets, bombers, drones and surveillance planes, however, can travel as far as 500 nautical miles in some cases without needing to refuel. These ranges for air platforms, when networked or integrated with land-weapons, can exponentially increase the sphere of potential air-ground attacks and reconnaissance missions. The vision with this, Deptula explained, is to form an expanded “self-healing” warfare network.
“If an enemy takes out a few aircraft, the information is already re-routed to the rest of the elements,” Deptula said in an interview with Warrior.
Within this conceptual framework, the “combat cloud” can use dispersed, long-range air assets as “sensor nodes” operating in tandem with land weapons.
The Army’s developing Long-Range Precision Fires weapon, engineered to hit targets as far away as 500 km, is a land weapon being engineered to support this concept and expand the Army’s strike range; this appears to offer an example of how land weapons could potentially be given targets over great distances by “networked” air platforms. Along these lines, Murray referred to LRPF as a high-priority program now being accelerated.
A vastly expanded air-ground attack network, Deptula added, could very well extend to include weapons engagement authority implemented by air nodes at great distances. A more dispersed attack scheme, fortified by long-range weapons and sensors, can hold previously inaccessible targets at risk. An airborne F-35 fighter could, for instance, use its drone-like sensors to acquire a target seemingly out of reach for land-launched missiles and provide the Army weapons with target specifics. Even further, an F-35 might be engineered to cue or even launch ground weapons at a target it identifies. Deptula cited this example in terms of Air Force-Navy synergy.
“If an F-35 detects an enemy missile launch before an Aegis cruiser, the F-35 could engage and launch the interceptor missile that comes off of that Aegis cruiser,” he explained. “We can’t do this yet today, but this is where we need to be doing collective thinking about this vision as a common vision.”
— From the Mitchell Institute Policy Paper
… individual platforms are evolving from a “stove-piped,” parochial service alignment, to a loosely federated “joint and combined” construct today, and eventually into a highly integrated enterprise that collaboratively leverages the broad exchange of information. Desired effects will increasingly be attained through the interaction of multiple systems, each one sharing information and empowering one another for a common purpose.…
Given the fast-growing need for these kinds of expanded attack options, the military is working with industry on a range of technical ways to bring broader, cross-domain networks to fruition. One aerospace firm, called MAG, is working with the Air Force, Air Force Special Operations Command, the Air Force Research Lab and various Army entities to explore next-generation networking systems able to connect soldier-wearable, airborne and vehicle-based ISR systems.
“This includes leveraging commercial Very Low Earth Orbit (vLEO) satellite broadband communications pioneered by industry and the AFRL,” Chad Vuyovich, Director of MAG’s AFSOC Programs, told Warrior Maven.
In a manner analogous to Deptula’s description of “self-healing” networks, Vuyovich said low latency, high-bandwidth vLEO technologies will similarly form “self-healing, ad hoc” networks.
“These are globally accessible and will interface with military-unique, private 4G/5G, and other standard WiFi networks. Data will be passed and processed across multiple internet protocol over radio (IPOR) data networks and global constellations,” Vuyovich said.
All of this military planning takes place within the often-discussed context of “great power competition,” “near-peer threats,” and preparations for “major power warfare.”
With this in mind, Murray cited US military concerns about advanced Russian tactics and technologies used during its attacks in Ukraine – with a specific mind to cross-domain, air-ground attacks.
“In Ukraine, we saw the pairing of drones with artillery to use drones as spotters. Their organizational structure and tactics were a wakeup call for us to start looking at that in a more serious way,” Murray said.
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